In the not too distant past, these two words would not have ever shared the same sentence. Nowadays, they are almost inseparable. One way to look at the distinction perhaps is that composition can happen without the need for production whereas production requires a composition to be needed.
I mean this in the broadest terms as there are today, pieces that are totally reliant on production without which they would be pale comparisons. In this article, I am going to take an open exploration of these two terms and how they relate to one another in a contemporary setting.
Music Composition and Production
Composing as an artistic activity we are well aware has been a central aspect of musical life for centuries. With the developments in electronic music and the recording of music, the options for composers radically changed. The experimental French composer Pierre Schaeffer was one of the most influential composers whose Musique Concrete compositions challenged the established ideas of what music and composition could be.
Schaeffer created works in the post-war era that used recorded sounds from the natural and man-made world to develop into incredible soundscapes. Arguably, Schaeffer could be seen as the Father of electroacoustic music that gave rise to the electronic music we hear today both in popular and Art Music.
In the early days of electronic music, the processes or production options were limited in comparison to what we have available today. Many of the ideas pioneered in the 1950s remain highly relevant to today’s practices. Perhaps most importantly, the exploration of electronic music is what led to the availability of many of the production techniques we exploit in our studios and enjoy on CD’s and on the internet.
Another key figure I feel it is important to mention in relation to the development of music production is Sir George Martin. George Martin may not be familiar to many but he almost unilaterally gave The Beatles their shot at fame and fortune. Initially, he was not overly impressed with their songs but on his insistence, The Beatles recorded “Love Me Do” with a session drummer rather than with their usual drummer Ringo, who Martin did not consider suitable, and they had their first number one record.
The relationship that followed was nothing short of remarkable both in terms of what it did for the Beatles career but also in respect of the developments in production that it led to. George Martin was thought of by many as the fifth Beatle. His arrangements of the Beatles songs and a huge encouragement to experiment with new recording and production techniques gave the Beatles their unique albums.
Martin’s influence moved the Beatles music into cutting-edge realms that would never have happened without him. One of the most iconic moments in the Beatles recording history I feel is the massive orchestral climax on Day In The Life which in terms of production techniques as well as compositional concepts was groundbreaking.
By the 1980s electronic music had hit the popular music scene and the idea of acoustic instruments playing alongside synthesised sounds was commonplace. What electronic keyboards, drums, and to an extent guitars presented were a whole new and exciting world of adaptable sound that could create compositions that were very different to what had been around even a decade before. It also allowed musicians to create music that did not require significant technical ability but instead knowledge of basic programming to produce the songs.
In tandem with the development of electronic instruments came the revolutions in recording and producing. Once the only option to capture a group of musicians had been on a wax cylinder, by the 80’s portable four and eight-track tape recorders were available for musicians to experiment with.
Making new technology available and affordable for the everyday musician meant that home studios became a real possibility. It also gave the chance for a far greater range of composers/ musicians to explore their compositions in ways that had previously been too expensive or too complicated to access.
Today we live in a world that is dominated by computers. Technology has become more and more powerful and smaller. On a laptop computer today it is possible to record multi-track pieces with powerful sampled sounds that can be fully edited to suit the composer’s wishes. What this often means is that composers are also often producers.
Unless you have the good fortune to be an A list film composer or successful member of a chart-topping band, the likelihood is that the music you compose, you will also produce. This makes the process of computer composition and computer production a very close and important relationship.
As technology becomes increasingly available, the amount of people composing music dramatically rises. This, in turn, means that being a composer these days is rarely enough if you are aiming for commercial success. The art of composing whether an EDM track a film score or a symphonic masterpiece, is still vital, especially when there is so much music being written. A composition needs to be well handled and hopefully distinctive to attract any commercial notice, but this alone is not enough.
Being able to produce your work to an industry standard is an expectation in nearly all walks of the music business. There is simply not the time or money for live musicians to hired, rehearsed and recorded unless there is a huge budget. Composers in the contemporary world of music need to wear all these hats at once.
What this does not mean is that the creativity is gone, or in some way swamped by technology. Great care does need to be taken to not allow the vast array of composition and production tools to take over making the creator the slave to technology. It is a great temptation to simply allow the computer to make pre-set choices, but this is surely the route to banality and creative failure. Instead, the opportunities for creativity, I would suggest, are greater than ever as are the chances to learn and develop as creative musicians.